Belfast Telegraph

Government under pressure over ‘incompatible’ Northern Ireland abortion law

Pro-choice campaigners demand action after Supreme Court judges say ban on terminations needs ‘radical reconsideration’.

The Government is facing mounting pressure to reform abortion laws in Northern Ireland after Supreme Court judges said they were incompatible with human rights legislation.

Pro-choice campaigners demanded action after a majority of Supreme Court judges said the ban on terminations in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality needed “radical reconsideration”.

While the majority of judges expressed a view that the current regime is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), they did not go so far as to make a formal declaration of incompatibility – a move that would probably have forced a law change.

That was essentially a legal technicality – a majority of judges ruled the organisation that brought the case did not have the authority to do so – and it did little to dampen calls for the Government to intervene and legislate in Northern Ireland amid the absence of devolved ministers due to the powersharing impasse in Belfast.

But Downing Street insisted the judgment did not change its view that the issue should be dealt with by a restored devolved Assembly.

Sarah Ewart, who in 2013 travelled from Northern Ireland to England after being told her baby would not survive outside the womb, was one of three cases referred to in the Supreme Court judgment.

“I, and we, will not stop until we can get our own medical care in our own hospitals at home,” she said outside court in London.

“To Theresa May, I would say, ‘We need change and help. This is a medical procedure that we need in our hospitals with our own medical team. Please help us now’.”

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Sarah Ewart, right, at the Supreme Court (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

A majority of a seven-strong panel of Supreme Court justices ruled the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had no legal standing to bring its challenge against the abortion law, and it could only have been brought by a woman impacted by the abortion ban.

Mrs Ewart intends to take a case to the High Court in Belfast to seek the formal declaration of incompatibility that the Supreme Court declined to grant on Thursday.

“I am relieved to hear the highest court in the land has recognised that Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights for people who find themselves with fatal foetal abnormality and have said that the law needs to be changed, so we will keep going until we get that change,” she added.

Speaking outside court, NIHRC chief commissioner Les Allamby said: “Northern Ireland is a wonderful place to both live and work yet it is in danger of becoming a place apart in human rights and equality that is not good for Northern Ireland and not good for the UK Government, which rightly projects its human rights and equality standards across the world, to have a backslider in its own back yard.

“In the absence of a Northern Ireland assembly and executive, we must ask Parliament to take our laws out of the 19th century and bring them into the 21st century.”

Anti-abortion campaigners drew encouragement from the lack of formal declaration.

This is a law in Northern Ireland and that is where these decisions should be made Bernadette Smyth

Bernadette Smyth, director of campaign group Precious Life, said: “What happened here today was upholding democracy. This court made a ruling that this court has no right to make decisions for Northern Ireland.

“Regardless of their opinions, this is a law in Northern Ireland and that is where these decisions should be made.

“This is about the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission misusing public funding.

“Stormont has the right to make legislation and this law was debated in 2016 and the decision was not to change that law. A consultation was undertaken and the people said a change should not be made.

“All children with disabilities should be protected. Our laws matter because every life matters.”

Anti-abortion advocate and DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the judgment.

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Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the judgment (Niall Carson/PA)

“I think there are serious questions to be asked of the Human Rights Commission about the amount of public expenditure which has gone into this case when they ought to have known from the beginning that this was beyond their remit,” he said.

Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said there was a momentum building for reform in Northern Ireland. She said the judgment was “further evidence that we need to change the law in the north of Ireland and stop failing women”.

Mrs O’Neill, who met with vocal pro-choice campaigner and Labour MP Stella Creasy at Westminster, said she would prefer to be in the Stormont Assembly trying to legislate on the issue, blaming the lack of powersharing administration on the DUP.

She said: “This is one of the many rights issues which the DUP are denying citizens in the North.”

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Abortion is illegal except where a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health. Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in February 2016 against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest.

The Supreme Court’s majority view was the ban in those specific cases was not compatible with article 8 of the ECHR – the right for respect for private and family life.

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Lord Mance said the current in Northern Ireland is ‘untenable’ (Lauren Hurley/PA)

Deputy Supreme Court president Lord Mance said the present law “clearly needs radical reconsideration” and that the opinion of the court – while not legally binding – “cannot safely be ignored”.

Lord Mance said in a lengthy written ruling: “I am, in short, satisfied that the present legislative position in Northern Ireland is untenable and intrinsically disproportionate in excluding from any possibility of abortion pregnancies involving fatal foetal abnormality or due to rape or incest.”

The debate in Northern Ireland has intensified after citizens in the Irish Republic voted by a landslide last month to liberalise the state’s laws.

The UK Government has resisted calls to step in and legislate, insisting that any decision on abortion in the region has to be taken by locally elected politicians at Stormont.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, responding to an urgent question in the House of Commons, said: “The Government is carefully considering the judgment and its implications.

“No formal declaration has been made by the court and the appeal has been dismissed. But the analysis and comments from the court on the issue of incompatibility will be clearly heard by this House and politicians in Northern Ireland.”

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Theresa May said: “The judgment will now be carefully considered.

“But, as we have said repeatedly, we want to see a devolved government restored so that locally elected, democratically accountable politicians can debate the fundamental changes to policy on abortion.”

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